Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Re-designing public services: a new public discourse

The emerging discipline of service design is becoming strikingly visible on the national agenda ... and is increasingly articulated by designers educated within art & design traditions rather than management or service delivery operations. Last week I attended a public event hosted by RED, a unit of the UK Design Council where three members of their interdisciplinary team of six presented what they do, and how and why they do it. The talk was part of a drop-in open day with a mini exhibition in the room next door. RED is led by Hilary Cottam (who won the Design Museum's Designer of the Year award last year). Its associates include the former head of IDEO's London office, Colin Burns, as well as Charlie Leadbeater, who also teaches social entrepreneurship at Said Business School.

RED is making an argument about the role of design in public services. Its focus is on helping create "a new generation of public services, designed around individuals" that are co-created with them, and that are preventative. Some of these ideas were made public in Feburary when RED published its paper on Transformation Design. Meanwhile over the summer, the influential UK think tank Demos published its paper on similar themes, entitled The Journey to the Interface co-written by Joe Heapy of service designer consultancy Engine, which makes an argument about how public service design can "connect users with reform". It seems as if a vocabulary and set of practices loosely assembled in fields such as experience design and human computer interaction design, enacted in both informal, commercial and academic domains, may now be taken up in public service contexts.

At the RED event, members of the team described their processes and methods and what they want to achieve. Jenny (no surname given) talked about RED's ambition to design for behaviour change: "As designers what we are doing is less about shaping form than shaping behaviour," she said. She went on to acknowledge that this sounded "a bit sinister" but then argued "But actually it's been used for a long time in the private sector." So these practices have the potential to (re)design not just the services, but the service users too. But the outcomes of public service designs are complex. RED sees value in making use of design methods used in Marks & Spencer, for example, to make the consuming experience "compelling and desirable" and applying them to public service contexts. In the M&S context, the use of these methods may well have a clear, measurable business objective: increasing sales, for example - and even here design practitioners may well struggle with framing the design problem, communicating with the client, and measuring the value of the design process and artefacts. How much harder it is to define and agree goals for public services or public goods. To what extent can design-led techniques make the UK more democratic? More healthy? More intelligent?

(all my transcriptions)


Lucy Kimbell said...


On re-reading this I wanted to point out that (with my practitioner hat on) I broadly support what RED is doing... Yes! Design practitices can change the world (for the better). But reflective practitioners, and indeed academics, must also ask what is going on in this designing. What are design practitioners claiming? In RED's work, for example, what behaviours are acceptable as designed outcomes? Who decides? To what extent do end users co-produce these behaviours and these services?

Design practitioners can be lazy about this and for design practices to be taken as seriously as many designers want - for design to lead - then designers need to articulate their ideas and methods in ways that acknowledge the complexity of these social, cultural and political issues.

Joe Heapy said...

Design always has shaped behaviour in some way and there is always a nice designerly tension between responding to existing behaviours and achieving originality through shaping new ones. As designers venture into the pubic sector they need to acknowledge that they are on even thinner ice when it comes to subject knowledge and determining the 'right' behaviours to design for. In the public sector designers need to take on a very different role - they need to provide creativity and ideas but the required skill set is centred around facilitating the creativity and innovation of others - non-designer multidisciplinary teams. This isn't about designers shaping behaviour change on their own. Designers need to be much more aware of the intricacies of the social contexts in which they are operating but no in order to shape responses to them directly but rather on behalf of others. Many designers neither want to or are able to work in this way. It would be great to get a chance to talk more on this.